Searchlight's pride in prejudice

By Geoffrey Alderman, October 25, 2013

Searchlight will be known to some of you as a well-researched and professionally produced magazine specialising in exposés of racism, fascism and antisemitism.

Next month, it will be hosting a one-day conference advertised as the curtain-raiser for its 50th anniversary celebrations planned for next year. Searchlight was not established with a specifically Jewish agenda. But its foundations were certainly built upon Jewish roots.

It was launched on the initiative, in part, of a group of left-wing Jewish adherents of the Labour movement — pre-eminently the late Reg Freeson, a child of the Norwood Orphanage who was elected MP for East Willesden in 1964; the late Maurice Ludmer, an active communist who was prominent in the foundation of the Anti-Nazi League, and — above all — the indefatigable Gerry Gable, who started out as Searchlight’s research director but who has been editing the publication for well over 30 years.

Freeson was a prominent member of Poale Zion, the Jewish Labour organisation whose affiliation to the British Labour Party (1920) was to be an important catalyst assisting in the conversion of Labour to an overtly Zionist stance in the early decades of the last century. Gable, too, was once a card-carrying communist but broke with the CP on the issue of its opposition to Zionism.

In the decades immediately following the Second World War, there was nothing at all unusual in socialists professing a Zionist creed. Those in charge of the world Zionist movement, and who comprised the early political leadership of the state of Israel, were left-wing to the core.

It finds all the demons it wants to slay on the right

Israel was then a predominantly agricultural enterprise, and the kibbutzim established by the Zionist pioneers were portrayed as models of socialist rectitude. Last year the Manchester University sociologist Dr Paul Kelemen subtitled his thematic study of the British left and Zionism, the History of a Divorce.

Kelemen tells the story of this divorce primarily in terms of the left’s disillusion with Israel post-1967. He does not discount the presence of a visceral anti-Jewish prejudice in British left-wing circles long before the Six-Day War — about the antisemitism of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, for example, he has no illusions. But this purely anti-Jewish prejudice does not feature prominently in the narrative he wants us to accept: that the left’s divorce from Zionism had little to do with antisemitism and everything to do with Israel’s imperialistic misdeeds.

Searchlight seems to me to exhibit, up to a point, this same blinkered vision. That is to say, it locates the demons it wishes (commendably) to slay, almost exclusively on the political right: first (in the 1960s and 1970s) the National Front, then the British National Party, more recently the English Defence League, and most recently UKIP.

According to Searchlight’s publicity for its forthcoming conference, “the rise of UKIP has been met by dithering over recognition of its true nature. UKIP is not just anti-EU or ‘a bit xenophobic’, it is racist to the core”. I am not a member of UKIP but I know several Jews who are, and many more who evince sympathy with its aims: they would certainly question whether it is “racist to the core”.

Searchlight did, it is true, condemn the anti-Jewish antics of Lord Ahmed, and from time to time its pages have exposed the more absurd anti-Zionist positions of some other purveyors of left-wing politics.

But the left-handed path to anti-Jewish racism is a route it clearly fears to tread. May I draw attention to an ominous article in the current edition of Searchlight, alleging that the celebrated (if controversial) historian of Jews and Christians under Muslim rule, Bat Ye’or [the pen-name of Gisele Littman] is guilty of peddling an “anti-jihad” discourse.

The author of this critique, Dr Paul Jackson, would have us believe that the writings of Bat Ye’or both feed and feed off a much broader Islamophobia.

As it approaches its 50th birthday, I gladly acknowledge that Searchlight has illuminated many dark corners. And I’m quite prepared to believe that, so long as Gerry Gable and his wife Sonia are around, Searchlight will not espouse any overtly anti-Zionist position. But when editorial control of the magazine passes from their hands, who knows?

Last updated: 11:45am, October 25 2013